War, resistance and the ALP

Issue 

Save Our Sons
SBS TV, February 27, 8.30pm (8 in SA)

Preview by Lisa Macdonald

This film, written and directed by Rebecca McLean, daughter of former Victorian ALP parliamentarian Jean McLean, is a long overdue documentation of a little known chapter in the history of women and progressive politics in Australia.

It is the story of five women who founded Save Our Sons (SOS), a movement which campaigned against conscription and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early '70s.

Interviews with the "Fairlea five" — Jean McLean, Joan Coxsedge, Irene Miller, Chris Cathie and Jo McLaine Ross — interspersed with television archive footage, paint a vivid picture of the growth of the anti-war movement and the commitment of many of the activists involved.

Conscription, announced by the Menzies Liberal government in 1964, drafted men who were not even old enough to vote. It was during the first call-up, when opposition to the war was still tiny, that SOS held its first public protest.

The women in SOS were widely condemned as hysterical mothers with nothing better to do, or communist dupes, or bimbos. Not deterred, they continued to campaign against conscription, and for the rights of conscientious objectors and draft resisters. Their contribution to building what eventually became a victorious mass movement against the war was immense.

While initially complete novices, SOS members learnt fast how to raise funds, and organise and address public meetings, rallies, teach-ins and protest marches. Along the way they were abused, assaulted, arrested and in 1971 spent 14 days in Fairlea Women's Prison for "trespassing" in a government building. Their successful campaign against a law prohibiting the distribution of leaflets in the streets of Melbourne was a victory for all progressive activists.

The inspiration and lessons about movement building to be drawn from this film are, however, marred by the fact that it simultaneously rewrites party political history. The Labor Party, which many SOS members eventually joined, is presented as a party of peace.

It is true, as the film tells it, that many rank and file party members were strong opponents of the war. It is also true that in the final years of the movement, Labor left leaders, under massive pressure from a growing movement, publicly opposed the war.

However, for the film to portray Labor leader Gough Whitlam as an anti-war hero because he ended conscription upon his election in 1972, is a gross distortion of history.

In the lead-up to the 1966 election, the ALP, led by Arthur Caldwell, had come out against Australian involvement in Vietnam. While this won the support of the still small anti-war movement, the Liberals were re-elected with a larger majority. Caldwell was summarily replaced by Whitlam who then led an attack on the party's withdrawal of troops policy, watering it down, in 1967, to "withdraw to holding areas".

By late 1969, however, with public opposition to the war having grown considerably, the ALP felt it safe to change its position again to oppose the war. They did this in 1970, calling for withdrawal of Australian troops "within six months". Only then did many ALP left leaders place themselves at the head of the moratorium campaign.

Over the next two years, the nationally dominant Labor right, frightened by the growing size and radicalism of the movement, successfully pressured the ALP left to call off and fragment the mass marches and focus activists' energy on helping draft resisters.

Under growing public pressure, Liberal PM Bill McMahon announced that Australian combat troops would be withdrawn by the end of 1971. When the Whitlam Labor government was elected in 1972, it simply implemented this policy and ended the then redundant policy of conscription.

With the truth about the ALP's role kept well in mind, Save Our Sons is well worth seeing if only because it begins to document a small but essential part of one of the most significant and successful mass movements this century.

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